In Turkey’s cutthroat hair-transplant tourism industry, the biggest losers are the patients and Syrian refugees
Walk through Taksim Square, the center of modern Istanbul, and you’ll see them: groups of men wandering around with their heads swaddled in bandages or bright-red marks shaped like boomerangs stretching from temple to temple at the crowns of their heads.
They’re a sign of one of Turkey’s fastest-growing industries. In the last few years, despite a significant decline in tourism more broadly, the country has become a destination for medical tourists seeking hair-transplant operations. Emin Çakmak, head of the development council of health tourism of Turkey, told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet that around 750,000 health tourists visited Turkey last year; about 60,000 come for hair transplants every year. Huyesin Kirk, chairman of the Middle East Tourism and Travel Agencies Association, estimates that there are between 150-500 hair transplant surgeries performed every week.
Hair transplants are an exacting and expensive operation where a doctor or technician makes thousands of small incisions at the front of the scalp, then takes hair follicles from the back of the head and inserts them into those incisions in the front. When it works, it results in new hair growth and is one of the only methods to combat baldness. When an operation is botched, the hair will grow in an unnatural direction and there’s a high risk for skin infection and scarring.
Aziz Khellout, a 28-year-old from Algeria, came to Istanbul in 2017 after his hair started falling out about three years ago. On Feb. 23, he sat nervously in a the lobby of a hair clinic, his head swaddled in bandages. He was excited to get his hair back. “Normally I’m self-confident. But since I started losing my hair, my self-confidence went down and down. I just want it back again,” he said. Khellout found the clinic on Facebook; he was impressed by the before-and-after pictures friends had posted. So he flew to Istanbul.
Aziz Khellout, from Algeria, after having a hair transplant completed at Clinic Expert in Istanbul.